Monday, July 26, 2010


"Insert Flap A And Throw Away"

INCEPTION is the latest gloom-a-thon from America's favorite purveyor of bloated bummers, Christopher Nolan, up to now the man most famous for leeching all entertainment value from the Batman franchise in BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. As even the doorknobs must know by now, INCEPTION follows a group of dream technicians (or does it?) led by Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who take the assignment of planting an idea in the head of the heir to a big corporation (or do they?). To do this, they have to enter dream states themselves (or do they?), which has risks, most notably in the form of DiCaprio's late wife Mal, played by the magnificent Marion Cotillard, who seems to have a bit of a grudge against her husband, for reasons which become clear.

Or do they?

INCEPTION, or as I've started to think of it, INFECTION, is yet another in an apparently endless series of puzzle movies that keep getting churned out with appalling regularity, and is in fact the second one this year, after Scorsese's equally tiresome SHUTTER ISLAND. Where SHUTTER ISLAND kept the energy high with a parade of wackadoo plot twists and a manic High-Gothic style culminating in the Big Surprise That Was Neither A Surprise Nor Big, INCEPTION goes for a Chinese box/Russian nesting doll kind of narrative where, all together now, Nothing Is As It Seems. Except, of course, When It Is What It Seems.

And Maybe Even Then..

Unless Of Course...

The whole movie is like that. Look, folks, I have nothing against a good solid mindfuck. But INCEPTION is neither good, nor much of a mindfuck. I think that my mind would have been more readily fucked by this film if, quite simply, I had given a good goddamn about anyone or anything in it. Nolan spends a lot of time describing in chemistry-killing detail the terribly elaborate rules of the dream world(s) the film is going to occupy, and this dialogue, while admirably clear, isn't leavened by any humor or wit or even basic human warmth, which means that fine actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt start to sound like they're reading from tech manuals rather than communicating with other people. The fact is that despite the actors' best efforts, the characters remain resolutely two-dimensional, with Marion Cotillard's Mal being the single memorable exception, and it just became impossible for me to take much interest in the assorted cliff hangers and plot twists and set pieces as a result.

And I can't say that the device of the dream stuff really adds much to the movie, except about $170 million in CGI costs and the tedious level of Is It Real ambiguity that seems more designed to keep message boards and study halls buzzing for the rest of the summer than anything else. This film could have been made without the dream stuff, and we'd have had a tight corporate espionage thriller instead of the bloated episode of MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE tarted up with fancy CGI that we're stuck with. Basically, the dream stuff doesn't really add as much to the film as it really should, except to complicate the story and the storytelling needlessly.

And the dreams on display are rather tiresome affairs. It is established with typical clarity that the dreams the team enters have all been carefully arranged for maximum reality, so there's no danger of sudden eruptions of sexual energy (never ever an issue in a Nolan film anyway) or sudden bits of strange unexplained subconscious dream stuff, which pretty much cuts the balls off the whole dream thing from the getgo, as far as I'm concerned. Why bother setting most or even all of a movie inside dreams if things aren't going to go fucking berserk once in a while?

Well, whatever Nolan wants, Nolan gets, as controlled and ultimately boring as it is. And you know, I think I'd even have been willing to go with the flow, or at least found the film less of an ordeal, if the film wasn't sunk by Christopher Nolan's suffocating seriousness, the solemnity bordering on pretentiousness that sends his work time and again, as in BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT, straight to the bottom of the ocean. Make no mistake: INCEPTION is a Serious Film here, one that deals with Big Ideas about Reality and Dreams and the Unconscious and Levels of Dreams and stuff like that. All of this is brought to the screen via plodding lifeless storytelling and by Serious Points that never for a moment convince except when they involve Marion Cotillard. Far greater and far more entertaining movies have played with these same themes without collapsing under their own tedious weight. See Gilliam's BRAZIL or TWELVE MONKEYS for films that, whatever their own problems, are made with wit and energy and most importantly a sense of LIFE that Christopher Nolan, for all of his technical brilliance, shows no interest in whatsoever. Nolan's films are D.O.A., and INCEPTION is the deadest of them all.

Friday, July 02, 2010


"One is starved for Technicolor up there!"

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's romantic wartime fantasy A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH centers on a romance between a British fighter pilot (David Niven) and a young American WAC (Kim Hunter) stationed in England. The pair have bonded over the radio one night, when the pilot's badly damaged plane gets lost in a fog and he has to bail out, and she is the last voice he hears over his radio headset. His survival after bailing out minus parachute is, it turns out accidental. The heavenly spirit sent to collect him (Marius Goring) also got lost in the fog, causing all kinds of problems with the Celestial Bureaucracy, when the pilot declines to correct the error by dying, especially now that he has found love.

I don't want to give away too much, as a good deal of the fun of the movie is watching the story unfold. Make no mistake, there's a lot to like and admire about the movie, especially the really fine performances and the really delicious use of Technicolor. God this film is gorgeous to look at. Your TV isn't used to showing you pictures like this. The greens are greener, and those reds are really red: you've never seen fire like you see it in this film. The pictures just jump off the screen.

There's also certain playfulness to the film that is really engaging. The story may not feel entirely fresh to 21st Century audiences, but there are lots of neat little details to keep the attention engaged. At one point in the film time stops short, and a table tennis game is halted with the ball hanging in space.

I'll admit though that I can't quite make up my mind about the film. I have to say that I find the love relationship to be rather unconvincing, there doesn't really seem to be a lot of chemistry there between David Niven and Kim Hunter. And the overt propaganda elements of the film get frankly tiresome. A big scene toward the end about British/American relations (you'll know what I mean when you see it) just brings the film to a screeching halt, and the love conquers all ending (not a spoiler, trust me, there's never any doubt where the story is heading) feels kind of tacked on, somehow. I'm not sure I believe it. Bureaucracies, celestial or otherwise, aren't known for being accommodating. This is either a serious flaw or a niggling complaint, as you please. I'm feeling kind of churlish bringing it up. I guess I'm saying that the film bites off more than it can really chew: the filmmakers expect a charming romantic wartime fantasy about the Power Of Love to carry more metaphoric and thematic propaganda weight than it can really bear. It doesn't really detract from the movie, I guess, but it doesn't exactly help either.


"Very much. Not so much."

Having seen this film at various times over the years, I just don't understand the wild praise the film continues to get. BLIMP, made in 1943, is the story of uber-Brit soldier Clive Candy (the great Roger Livesey) and his adventures in the years between 1902 and 1943. His assorted romantic relationships are gone into, and his deep friendship with the German officer Theodor von Kretchmar-Schuldorff (the great Anton Walbrook) is really the core of the film. There's a lot about German British relations in the film, understandably, and some rather solid home truths are spoken on both sides, pro-British and anti-British as well as pro-German and anti-German. Apparently Winston Churchill tried to have the film stopped because of the positive depiction of a German officer.

COL. BLIMP is clearly aiming at being about England and the English the way that MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON is about America and Americans. There's no doubt in my mind as to which is the superior film (MR. SMITH wins by many many light years) but it could just be one of those weird nationalistic things: maybe I'm just too American to understand COL. BLIMP. And that's a shame, because I don't think that's what they had in mind. COL. BLIMP is not an easy film, by any means, there are a lot of complicated ideas floating around in it, most especially and currently relevantly about the proper way to deal with a war: how does a country that prides itself on fair play and a particular brand of decency deal with the very real threat of an enemy that just keeps refusing to co-operate? How dirty can a nation fight without compromising itself? The film never really gets around to answering these questions, as far as I can tell.

There's an uncharacteristic technical clumsiness to the film, which I really find unbelievable in a Powell/Pressburger production. At least two transitional moments in the film are handled what was probably intended to be an interesting and cinematic manner, and you can see what they're wanting to do, but it doesn't come off at all well. The most disturbing is the first flashback transition from from 1943 to 1902 (there's a framing device whereby the film opens in 1943 and goes back to 1902 to start Clive's story at the beginning). I won't bother describing it, but you'll know what I mean when you see it. It is the clumsiest bit of bad filmmaking a fine director ever put into a film, and I just can't believe they left it in -- surely they could have done another take or two or nine.

I'd be ready to forgive it a lot more if I didn't consistently find myself thinking that the film could be a lot tighter, that 20 minutes were being taken to establish what really could have been set up in less than 5. An extended sequence set during WWI just goes on and on, and even winds up with one of the lamest cliches ever put on film: two characters notice that the guns have stopped on Armistice Day, and the sudden silence is actually augmented with birdsong and the clouds actually lift a bit allowing some sunshine. No, really, that's what happens. Maybe I need to do some more reading on the film. Maybe I'm just missing something.

There are good things, in the film, of course. Roger Livesey's performance as Clive is most impressive, and Deborah Kerr, in her film debut, is admirable in her three roles. But the film comes most incredibly alive whenever the great Anton Walbrook graces the screen. There's none of the mad intensity of his work in THE RED SHOES or THE QUEEN OF SPADES in BLIMP; he's very quiet and restrained, for the most part, particularly in an extended single-shot monologue that is simply the most moving scene in Powell/Pressburger's filmography. If I continue to see the film time after time, banging my head against the wall trying to get a handle on it rather than dismissing it as a failure, it is because of Walbrook. I'd watch and listen to him read the goddamn phone book.